Magen David Adom- Discovering Israel as a First Responder

Cleaning the White Ambulance (Photo Courtesy Abigail Leibowitz)

Witnessing Israel as a tourist is one thing, as a student is another, but as a first responder it’s a completely different ballpark. In addition to volunteering at the Yemin Orde High School, I am volunteering with Magen David Adom (MDA)- Israel’s ambulance service, seeing Israeli society at its raw and vulnerable moments. Going into the homes of Israelis, conversing with patients in Hebrew, and tending to minor and serious emergencies, this experience has been an eye-opener, and has enhanced my ability to observe and communicate effectively.

Nativers After the MDA Course Graduation (Photo Courtesy Abigail Leibowitz)

During our grueling 60-hour course over winter break in Jerusalem, I served as a study assistant for many of my friends who had trouble memorizing Hebrew medical terms. Mnemonic devices became a lifesaver. I’m glad to report we all passed the exam.

On February 8, Ariel and I stepped into the ambulance with wide-eyed naivete, ready for our first shift. Luckily our driver, Or, and the other medic, Shai, enthusiastically welcomed us and started explaining everything around the ambulance. Before Ariel and I could even get buckled in, we immediately had a call. Caught off guard, Ariel and I went flying to the back of the ambulance. While the call ended up being nothing more than a delivery of supplies, we were high on the adrenaline. We had just concluded our first ride in the ambulance!

On our next call, a lady complained about chest pains. Her vitals appeared normal so there wasn’t much we could do aside from telling her to go to the hospital. While anticlimactic, this was my first time taking blood pressure and I put the manjeta [sleeve] on backwards, slightly embarrassing myself. I reacted by applying the “taut madhima” philosophy I had learned at the Yemin Orde High School.

In addition to medical emergencies, we get to witness some of the uglier sides of Israeli society. Later that night, we got called to two girls fighting in front of a restaurant. As there were no injuries, I’m still unsure why MDA was called, but I guess better safe than sorry.

Cleaning the White Ambulance (Photo Courtesy Abigail Leibowitz)

In Israel, in order to preserve resources ambulances are separated into yellow and white ambulances- yellow, called MICUs (mobile intensive care units), carry advanced life support equipment and are sent to emergency cases, while white ones only carry basic life support equipment and are sent to non-emergency cases. In my first MICU shift I witnessed the processes of diagnosing and assessing a patient’s condition using inductive and deductive reasoning. For example, one of the patients was breathing and conscious but not responding and her face was droopy. Being conscious but not responding signified that her condition is likely neurological, and her droopy face was a prime indicator of a stroke. Taking her to Rambam Hospital in Haifa, I noticed that most doctors there were Russian or Arab, depicting further the melting pot nature of Israel.

Furthermore, I get to hear inspiring stories from everyday citizens. One of our patients was a weak, old man who had nausea, and while in the ambulance his wife began recounting her life story: how she was hidden in cabinets as a baby in World War II, and then lived in a ma’abara (immigrant and refugee absorption camp) in the 1950s, got married at 18 and had her first child at 19.

As a kur hituch [lit. melting pot], MDA has allowed me to see the unique racial and ethnic dynamics present in mixed Arab-Israeli cities such as Haifa. At the end of one of my shifts, one of the drivers of the next shift, Ahmad, began getting ready for the afternoon prayer- which prompted the Jewish paramedic on shift with him to say: “If you need, I have tefillin.”:)

While only a funny remark that lightened up the atmosphere, it’s a harbinger of the potential goodhearted coexistence that can happen in this land between Jews and Arabs. It also reminded me of the joke: A Muslim and a Jew were on a train ride together. At midday, the Muslim took out a prayer mat and began reciting out loud “la ilaha illa llah (There is no deity but Allah) Muhammadur rasulullah (Muhammad is the messenger of Allah).” The Jew suddenly is reminded it is time for his afternoon prayer, Mincha. He sees all the curious faces on the train looking in the Muslim’s direction, and decides to play it safe: He takes out his phone, puts it to his ear and quietly begins mumbling “Ashrei yoshvei veitekha…”

Indeed, many of my drivers in MDA are Arab-Israeli citizens. One of my favorite drivers, Ismael, is helping me improve my Arabic. I greet him every time with “marhaba!” and comment “mumtaz!” whenever I am impressed with something. Each time I insert a new Arabic word into our conversations, he immediately becomes ecstatic. We have had conversations about politics, and I was fascinated to find out he votes Meretz [=the Jewish progressive party], as I had expected him to say the Joint Arab List. He has taught me new Arabic words such as “hot” = hama, “cold”= bared, and “hurt” = woja. If I’ll be speaking fluent Arabic soon, it’s going to be thanks to Ismael.

I have also learned that irresponsibility is a disease common in every country. One of our cases was a man who had fainted and undergone intense fatigue. It turned out it was likely because he ate falafel and hummus following a procedure in the hospital, despite being specifically instructed not to eat anything for a few hours after the procedure.

On February 24, I had my most dramatic case thus far. We were called to a man who was beaten up on the side of the road. He had a huge bulge on the side of his head, his hands were cut up everywhere, and dried blood was splattered all over his face. Police were swarming the scene. As we helped him into the ambulance, the traumatized patient kept on saying if the police hadn’t come when they had – the perpetrators would have killed him. While the police were questioning him and examining details, a lady approached and started asking the police questions, claiming she’s related to the case. When they told her to get lost because she’s interfering with their work, the Ethiopian woman began accusing “what? do you hate black people?!?!” to which the police responded with greater hostility. Our job as first responders is performing basic life support treatment and transporting patients to the hospital, so despite our wandering suspense we left the scene with many questions unanswered about what had happened.

Another volunteer, Rachel, and I in the gear we have to wear for each COVID call (Photo Courtesy Abigail Leibowitz)

A heartbreaking aspect of volunteering has been witnessing the devastating impact of COVID-19 on elderly populations. Numerous cases of mine have been elderly folks debilitated and barely breathing because they contracted COVID, requiring hospital ventilation. So if you still haven’t gotten vaccinated or boosted – think of these patients and do your part to minimize the damage this virus is causing. As a volunteer on the front lines, I can assure you: It’s not an empty slogan – VACCINES SAVE LIVES!

Stay tuned to hear about some of my insights from Nativ’s Religion and State seminar!

About the Author
Abby is a student and volunteer on the Nativ College Leadership Program. Originally from Israel, she moved to Silver Spring, MD as a baby and grew up there with her parents and twin brother. Inspired by Jewish concepts of Tikkun Olam and the Jewish refugee narrative, she hopes to go to law school and work in human rights law. Back in the US, she led a student advocacy group called F.A.I.R- Fans of Asylum and Immigration Reform, taught at Temple Emanuel Religious School, and was a teacher’s assistant at CityDance School and Conservatory. During her free time Abby loves to take dance classes, play backgammon (and win of course), and read!
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